What SMB CIOs can learn from Google’s Ben Fried

When Ben Fried left his post as IT managing director at Morgan Stanley and took over as Google’s CIO in May 2008, he knew what he was getting into: supporting a user base full of technology experts and computer industry stars, like co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, CEO Eric Schmidt and Vice President Vint Cerf.

In a recent interview with IDG News Service, Fried spoke candidly about his job and shared tips and advice for fellow CIOs, including the urgent need for tablet device strategies. An edited transcript of the interview follows.

IDG News Service:

What are the challenges and satisfactions of being CIO of a company with thousands of computer engineers, as opposed to being CIO of, say, a fast-food or retail store chain?

Ben Fried: Some things about it are really hard because many brilliant technologists are my customers. You have to have a thick skin. That’s also true for people in engineering who build Google products, because we test the products internally. What’s different about Google is that we produce astoundingly high-quality products and we have an ability to use technology to shape the organization that you don’t necessarily have in other companies. We have leadership that fundamentally and deeply understands what me and my people do, which is awesome. So it’s incredibly hard because I have the most demanding users in the world but there’s no better way to be great than by having demanding customers. The results are incredibly rewarding. When I see the work that my people produce, I’m just awed by it.

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IDGNS: What have been your biggest accomplishments as Google CIO?

Fried: Every manager I know hesitates to answer that type of question because it’s the things you don’t put in the answer that will cause you problems and I’d risk offending a lot of people. At a high level, there’s this really neat value at Google that we don’t create the processes that our technology allows, but rather we decide what we want Google to be and we create technology to enable that.

I’m proudest of things where we’ve allowed Google to be different. Google hires people, promotes people and rewards people in ways that are unique. All of those things and many other things that [Google does] that are unique are also supported by software that my organization does, builds and writes. I’m also proud that we give our users choice in personal technology and that we’ve built an astoundingly good customer support organization: The first responder to your problem will solve it about 90 per cent of the time. I’m also proud that we did a very successful financial systems upgrade last year with a ton of planning and that it went flawlessly. There are many other things my organization accomplished that I’m very proud of.

IDGNS: How do Google’s marketing and business strategies and principles limit or expand your technology choices? For example, what happens if in a particular scenario you think that the right approach from the IT perspective is at odds with what Google is advocating through its product marketing?

Fried: There is a very specific answer about our philosophy regarding what the role of IT needs to be at Google. Obviously, we’re part of Google and making sure that Google tries out its products and that its users make those products better is incredibly important. That’s clearly part of our job. But my mission, writ large, is to make this an incredibly productive organization. A way to do that is through a philosophy of choice. We allow users, within certain constraints, to choose the toolset with which they can be more productive. That produces the best overall environment. Of course, over the course of time we may change our minds over what the scope or spectrum of those choices are. But we, for example, support three operating systems for laptops and desktops: MacOS, Windows and Linux. People who work at Google and people in general entering the workforce today tend to have strong opinions about how they work best. We can do our job best by supporting them in those opinions. Obviously, with all these things, you have to apply some judgment, but that’s what we do.

IDGNS: Are you standardized on Google Apps and Docs or do you also use Microsoft Office?

Fried: We definitely use Microsoft Office inside the company, as well as OpenOffice. What we’ve found is that, in an environment of choice, people use Google Apps for a majority of their work. Apps was designed around observations of the way we work here. In some sense, it’s almost a false comparison with other office suites. Apps is optimized around a workforce and style of work where collabouration is at the core. That’s the most important thing. There are lots of things that Apps doesn’t do and the Apps team would be the first to tell you that, but what it does do and the style of work it does enable is how Google works as a company.

Related – Office apps showdown: Google Docs vs. Word 2011 vs. Pages ’09

IDGNS: But Gmail is your enterprise e-mail system, right?

Fried: Yes. Everyone gets and uses Gmail, and we let people use a variety of e-mail clients inside the company, which is good because it exercises the non-Web interfaces of the app.

Without a top-down mandate to use Google Apps [within Google], it was recognized that Apps was a success when years ago, before I got here, more than 50 per cent of the documents were passed around in the company as links to Docs, not as attachments. That was a measurement of people’s behavior given choice.

IDGNS: How much input do you and your team get asked for regarding product development decisions?

Fried: We have very strong relationships with the enterprise team and other related areas. It depends a lot on the particular area. There are a bunch of products on which we spend a lot of time talking to product managers and product teams about what our needs are. We do a lot of it. It’s an important part of what we do.

IDGNS: You mentioned earlier that the changing landscape of tablets is something CIOs need to pay attention to. Why?

Fried: There’s going to be a ton of tablets out there and people will bring them to work. It will follow the path of BlackBerrys in the enterprise years ago. Road warriors brought in their BlackBerrys and demanded service and pretty soon some were dropping their laptops and going BlackBerry only. CIOs needed to figure out what services they were going to provide on top of this. My advice to CIOs now is to look at tablets and think hard about what your strategy is. Some people already feel that they’re behind on the game on this. But if you look at the variety of Android tablets coming out, it’s clear that it will be a diverse landscape and you have a chance to get in ahead of this. CIOs are going to have to think about software delivery. Are we going to buy software for these tablets? Do we have to think about training for our development organizations to learn how to build for these things? Do we have to think about optimizing Web browser experiences to work for this stuff? CIOs need to have a strategy and opinions about tablets because it will be the next personal computing platform that we’re expected to provide at the enterprise, and very quickly. It will be this year.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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